The Trump administration's new cyber doctrine may go a long way in clarifying the role of different agencies, but cybersecurity experts and former U.S. officials still have questions.
The Trump administration's new cyber strategy is meant to clarify the roles of different federal agencies in a new, more-aggressive posture to combat and deter nation-state hacking groups.
The reaction to the rollout was largely positive across the political spectrum, even as Democrats and Republicans acknowledged much of the actual strategy contains little that is new or different from the strategies proposed (though not necessarily implemented) by past administrations.
A statement from Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) indicates there may still be some work left to do hashing out the various roles played by different agencies. Ratcliffe said the House Homeland Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Protection subcommittee he chairs will collaborate with the White House to "define DHS' specific role in its implementation" to "most effectively address our top cyber priorities both foreign and domestic."
Chris Painter, former cyber coordinator for the State Department cyber policy, worried that it was still not entirely clear how much leeway the administration will give offensive cyber operators and whether the strategy could succeed without a more-public signal to targeted nation states like Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.
"Will some of these [operations] be declared to the adversary? " Painter said on Twitter. "[It] may be more effective to say 'that was us and we will do it again if yo u don't stop'…than flying under the radar and having a questionable effect."
Michael Daniel, who served as cyber coordinator under the Obama administration and now heads the Cyber Threat Alliance, said the document "shows what a national strategy can look like on an issue that is truly nonpartisan." He praised the administration for striking the right balance between defensive cybersecurity and going after malicious groups at their source to impose consequences and deter future activity.
"This strategy protects end-users, disrupts malicious actions, and elevates overall security for everyone," said Daniel.
Daniel was reportedly at the forefront of developing a number of more-aggressive responses to punish Russia in 2016 as reports about the depth of Moscow's interference and disinformation campaigns in the presidential election came into focus, but he testified in June of this year that those options were "put on the back burner" by National Security Council leaders who feared it might precipitate a larger cyberwar between the U.S. and Russia.
Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), a cofounder of the Congressional Cybersecurity Caucus, was less impressed, calling the strategy "largely a restatement of recommendations that have carried through the last several administrations." He also expressed concern that in an all-out cyberwar, the U.S. has more to lose than other countries like China or Russia.
"I agree that our adversaries need to know that we can -- and will -- challenge them in cyberspace," said Langevin in a statement. "But as the country with the most innovative economy in the world, we must also acknowledge the abiding interest of the United States in encouraging stability in this domain. It is incontrovertible that we must respond to malicious activity violating well-established norms of responsible behavior, but that response must be whole-of-government and need not always include a cyber component."
Langevin made similar arguments to FCW in a July 2018 story on the amorphous rules governing U.S. cyberwar. Unlike Painter, he said he worried about the U.S. being "too prescriptive" in laying out red lines or communicating consequences, arguing it could incentive other countries to walk right up the line without crossing it.
Greg Touhill, a retired U.S. Air Force general and former federal Chief Information Security Officer, called the administration's strategy "ambitious" and highlighted a few items, such as proposals for a cyber deterrence initiative, baking cybersecurity into the technology supply chain and phasing out of social security numbers, as significant steps forward.
"It reads like a response to former National Security Agency Director Admiral Mike Rogers' February Congressional testimony where he acknowledged current constraints in responding to the active threat landscape the US faces," said Touhill in a statement.
In that hearing Rogers, who has since left government, was peppered with questions about what the NSA and Cyber Command were doing to protect election infrastructure, wage offensive operations against Russia and police the sharing of contractor source code with foreign governments. Rogers told lawmakers that he would need "a policy decision that indicates there's specific direction to do that."